Sexism And Language : What Can The Web Teach Us?


Women, language, French, gender, lexicology, dictionaries, femmes, Renaissance, langue, français, sexe, genre, lexicologie, dictionnaires

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Baider, F. (2000). Sexism And Language : What Can The Web Teach Us?. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, (7). DOI:


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Une femme galante est une femme de mauvaise vie, un homme galant est un homme bien élevé.
Une femme savante est ridicule, un homme savant est respecté.
Une femme légère l'est de mœurs. Un homme s'il lui arrive d'être léger, ne peut l'être que d'esprit.
On dit une fille ou une femme facile, mais pas un homme facile, une femme de petite vertu mais pas un homme de petite vertu; on dit une femme de mauvaise vie mais on dit un Don Juan [...]

(Yaguello 1987: 142) [1]


"Quelle grande dame!" "What a great lady!" wrote a reader in L'actualité, a Québécois magazine, on the 1st of November 1997. He was writing about a woman minister. The adjective grand here means "great" because it is placed before the noun. It would mean "tall" when placed after the noun. This is what linguists call a differential meaning for the same adjective. In the French language, there are quite a number of adjectives changing their meaning according to their position before or after the noun. In our example, had the minister previously mentioned been a man, the writer would have had a choice. He could have used the paradigmatic equivalent of dame which is monsieur "Quel grand monsieur!" or he could have used the noun homme, "Quel grand homme!". Both expressions mean the same thing : "What a great man". However, describing a woman, he could not use the noun femme, the paradigmatic equivalent of homme since "Quelle grande femme" means "What a tall woman!" and not "What a great woman!". Somehow, the noun femme prevents the positive connotation of the adjective when placed before the nouns dame, monsieur and homme. In this essay I will mention my hypothesis [2] to explain why these adjectives behave differently when qualifying the noun homme or femme. This hypothesis will be substantiated with on-line data and other computerized resources. I will then ask the question, based on the findings about women writers and their usage of adjectives, whether this differential meaning could symbolize sexism in language.

1. The role of the noun woman

1.1. A differential meaning with adjectives placed before the noun

As mentioned in the introduction, if we look at series of adjectives collocated with the nouns femme and homme in the French language such as grand homme / grande femme, gentilhomme / gentille femme, honnête homme / honnête femme, homme galant / femme galante, we observe a different pattern of behaviour when the adjective qualifies the noun man or woman. The basic meaning of grand is "tall", such as in "une grande femme" ("a tall woman"), however un grand homme means "a great man"; gentil on its own means "kind", une gentille femme is then "a woman who is kind" but un gentilhomme is "a gentleman"; honnête means "honest" but un honnête homme is "an intellectual/social ideal (based on a 17th century ideal)" whereas une honnête femme is "a woman who is loyal as a spouse or virtuous as a woman".[3] These collocations refer to the concept of "man" on an intellectual level and the adjectives are connoted positively. However no intellectual quality is to be found when the same adjectives are associated with the noun femme. The adjective is then referring to a body and not an intellect.[4] This lack of abstraction of the adjectives with the word femme could then be summarized with the following dichotomy: nature (woman) vs. culture (man), nature being less valued than culture. The only collocation that presents an abstraction with the noun femme is honnête femme, which refers to her domestic status. The differential meaning between honnête homme and honnête femme is sexual in nature: honnête femme relates to the sexual behaviour of the woman or as a spouse (she is faithful) or as a female adult human being (she is chaste). This sexual connotation is found with other syntagms as well.

1.2. The same differential meaning with adjectives placed after the noun

It is well-known that in French as in English the adjective facile "easy" takes a sexual meaning when used with the noun femme: un homme facile is easygoing, une femme facile is easily seduced – as in English easy man vs. easy woman. The noun man is here still described on the social level whereas the noun woman refers to the sexual sphere. This discrepancy is found with all the syntagms [homme/femme + adjective] presenting a differential meaning: une femme légère only relates to her sexual "légèreté" but un homme léger has a good sense of humour; un homme galant [5] knows how to behave with women whereas une femme galante is promiscuous; une femme grosse describes her pregnant state which again relates to her sexuality but un homme gros is overweight; un homme public can be famous since he is important in his community, une femme publique is often notorious since she works in the sex trade. The differential meaning of these syntagms [6] relates to sexuality in the case of the noun femme (galante, facile, légère, grosse, publique); to social and intellectual/social qualities in the case of the noun man. We could infer from this list that the noun man refers to a social being with a brain; the noun woman refers to a sexual being. We again find the dichotomy nature (sexual domain) vs. culture (social domain). How did the connotation of these collocations come to be derogatory (presented in 1.1) and sexual (presented in 1.2)? Where does this differential meaning come from?

1.3. Where does this differential meaning come from?

The adjectives discussed in the two previous paragraphs present a differential meaning according to the noun they qualify and not because of their position before or after the noun. Since the same differential meaning (relating to nature) was found for adjectives placed after or before the noun femme, we can assume that the noun femme modifies in some way the adjectives with which it is collocated. Furthermore the meaning of the adjective used with the noun femme is in all cases less valued than the meaning of the same adjective with the noun homme. We can then assume that the noun femme is itself associated with derogation, an assumption supported by Grisay (1969) and Martin-Berthet (1981a and 1981b), who studied, diachronically and synchronically, the possible derogation of the noun femme. This assumption has also been made for the noun woman (and any word belonging to the paradigm "woman" ) by linguists working on the English language such as R. Lakoff (1975), D. Cameron (1990 [1975]) and M. Shultz ([1990]1975), to name a few.

To substantiate this hypothesis of contamination of the noun femme, I have to examine whether the connotation of the adjective was gradually acquired. A diachronic approach should also allow us to find out also whether the noun femme itself acquired gradually a sexual connotation (if so, when and how?) or whether it has always been 'connoted' in a derogatory manner. Computerized databases and on-line texts provide the much-needed data to examine this assumed phenomenon of derogation.

Before presenting some results, I will introduce the database with which I have been working, namely the textual database called ARTFL and the electronic dictionaries to which I had access.

2. Description of the data sources

2.1. Electronic texts

ARTFL is an on-line database housing more than 2000 French literary texts from the 15th century up to the 20th century (figures for the year 1998). I will start with its flaws. First, the literary texts contain many typographical errors; moreover some literary specialists are not happy with the editions that have been chosen. However for the type of linguistic research I am doing, this database provides quickly a great deal of much-needed data, and literary perfection is not my primary concern. Second, Karen Offen, (1987: 496) and the manager of ARTFL, Mark Olsen (1991b: 10), pointed out the lack of female authors, since they represent some 3.8 % of the total number of titles in the data base. On the other hand, the paucity of women's texts in ARTFL reflects the paucity of women's texts in what is recognized as the canon in literature. Therefore ARTFL allows me to work on the dominant discourse.

2.2. Electronic dictionaries

For this paper, I restricted my research to two on-line dictionaries: Nicot's Thresor de la langue françoyse (1606) and Estienne's Dictionarium latinogallicum (1552), the forefather of Nicot's work. Both were computerized by T.R. Wooldridge at the University of Toronto. I also had access to the Dictionarius of Firmin Le Ver [7], a 15th-century Latin-French dictionary computerized by Brian Merrilees and William Edwards at the University of Toronto. For the former, I used the concordance program WordCruncher.

2.3 Methodology

Since the aim of this research was to find out whether the noun femme was connoted negatively or sexually, I chose to work first on the lexicographical database. Dictionaries are primary concerned with defining semantic features and I assumed I would find in the lexicographical data the answer to my semantic inquiry. Also dictionaries are texts encoded in the discourse of their times and encoding the dominant values. Therefore they have to be considered as socio-linguistic documents and can provide answer to the origin of a phenomenon involving language and society. The literary textual database was used as a control text to check whether the usage described in the dictionaries was found in the literary texts.

I started with the Medieval and Renaissance periods and investigated all the adjectives used with the nouns homme and femme in the electronic dictionaries previously mentioned. It allowed me to discover other collocations with a differential meaning. I was also able to check whether the syntagms presented earlier in this paper were already used with a differential meaning at the time, and by which process they came to acquire this difference in meaning. These lexical fields were also useful to understand how the noun femme could be connoted sexually and negatively.

3. Results

Although electronic dictionaries represent a huge pool of data, adjectives were not easily found in collocations, especially in the Renaissance database. On the other hand, I could investigate the noun femme – and its paradigms [8] – in order to define their lexical fields in all dictionaries.

3.1. Medieval and Renaissance period

Adjectives used with the noun femme in a medieval dictionary

In the 15th-century database, 31 different types of adjectives were found in the lexical field of the noun femme, 25 for the noun homme: 45 % of the total amount of adjectives used with the noun femme related to the woman's sexuality, whereas 4 % used with the noun homme referred to a man's sexuality; 25 % of the total amount of the adjectives used with the femme described the woman's bad morals, 4 % for homme: one adjective, ribaud "homme débauché" against four adjectives meaning "femme débauchée" (commune, ribaude, walouque, louche).

The discrepancy of these figures led us to assume that the sexual behavior of the referent 'femme' is very much a topic of concern in the French language described in these lexicographical data. The 'bad' sexual behavior is especially noted.

Among these adjectives, two syntagms were used with a differential meaning, namely femme grosse "pregnant woman" vs. homme gros "a man who is overweight" and fol femme "prostitute" vs. fol homme "a man who is crazy". The adjective fol, which today means "mad", could also mean at the time "volage" ("unfaithful") when describing both genders; however the syntagm folle femme came to mean "prostitute" whereas the syntagm fol homme ou homme fou was never used as a sexual slur.

These few results corroborate the tendency of adjectives to take a sexual meaning when used with the noun femme but not when used with the noun homme. Also the amount of adjectives describing the woman as a sexual being makes us wonder whether the concept of womanhood is partially about being 'le sexe' (to use an expression formerly referring to women in general).

The noun femme and its paradigm in a Renaissance dictionary

If we consider the findings from Nicot's Thresor de la langue françoyse and Estienne's Dictionarium, it seems to be the case; the most important lexical field defined by the noun femme was 'Sexuality and Reproduction'. To sum up the four major lexical fields in order of importance:

  1. Sexuality and Reproduction [9]
  2. Family
  3. Metaphoric usage
  4. Social being (the least important)

One factor common to all these lexical fields is that the noun femme is defined by and for the man in this lexicographical discourse. The lexical fields such as Sexuality, Reproduction, Family speak for themselves; as far as the lexical field Social being is concerned, the occurrences are limited to femme de untel "the spouse of so and so" and to her relationship to a man, whether this man is her nephew, son or father. A trend that was still in vogue up to 1940 since the Larousse dictionary was defining in the same fashion the noun femme (M. Yaguello, 1989 [1978]: 167). The lexical fields entitled Metaphors and Generic usage refer to the previously described 'female activities', namely sexuality and reproduction. For example, in the Metaphor category the noun woman is replaced, by metonymy, with the noun bed (the spouse is, first of all, "la compagne de lit"). Also, in these dictionaries, the noun woman is treated in syntax as an object and very rarely as an agent. For example, to explain the usage of one grammatical word such as quid, the examples that were given are the following:

Quid: quel homme es-tu? Quelle femme as-tu? De quelles femmes me parles-tu? Quelle sorte de femme as-tu? Quel diable de femme as-tu?
"Quid: what kind of man are you? What kind of woman do you have? About which women are you talking? What kind of evil woman do you have?"

The woman is also the object of the discourse (De quelles femmes me parles-tu?). This "grammatical object" is also inferior by nature and in its concept:

L'homme est de sa nature de plus grande apparence, et plus honorable, que la femme. (Thresor: apparence, 36) "Man has by nature a taller and more honourable appearance than the woman."

As in the 15th century, lexicographical works in the Renaissance did not give much hope for improvement in the connotation linked with the noun femme. A final example will exemplify the deterioration of the lexicographical discourse when speaking of women.

Lexicographical discourse and derogation: the case of the noun virgo "vierge"

If we consider the definitions used for the noun denoting "vierge" ("virgin female being"), we observe a gradual change in the lexicographical discourse. In the Dictionarium latinogallicum, the noun virgo is essentially defined by whether the woman is married or not and whether she is beautiful or not. (In the following quotations the Latin is omitted and the English translations are mine.)

Virgo, [...] Vierge, Pucelle. "virgin"
[...] Qui ne sont encore mariees. "women who are not yet married"
[...] Excellentement bien douee et garnie de beaulté. "extremely well-endowed and beautiful"
[...] Preste à marier. "ready to be married"
[...] Parees nettement et proprement. "adorned in a clean and neat fashion"
[...] Religieuses. "nuns"
[...] Femme mariee. "married woman"

However, the later definition of the same noun virgo, in the Thresor de la langue françoyse (the French-Latin later version of the Dictionarium), has evolved but in a sinister fashion; all the positive connotations have disappeared. First, beauty ("bien douée" et "garnie de beaulté") and positive qualities (nettement, proprement) are not present any more in the discourse; on the contrary the noun vierge is used in an example as synonymous with "old or poor spinster", "woman unable to marry because too old or too poor". Second, the only other dimension found in this lexical field is violence: rape seems to be the fate of a young unmarried woman since all the verbs used in the definition are about sexual violence (despuceler [10], ravir, violer):

Vierge, Virgo. [...] "virgin"
Vierge qui ne peut trouver party ne mary, pourtant qu'elle est trop vieille, ou trop povre [...] "a virgin who cannot find a partner because she is too old or too poor"
Despuceler une vierge [...] "to deflower"
Ravir une vierge [...] "to kidnap or to rape" [11]
Violer une vierge [...] "to rape"

In an earlier study, I questioned the choice of some quotations in Estienne´s dictionary (Baider, 1996). I am asking the same question about Nicot's examples (a virgin becomes a spinster). The tradition of inventing examples and at the same conveying personal judgments is not unfamiliar: Knuston (1985) noticed Furetière's hate for the prude, l'abbé Roubaud in his 19th-century dictionary gives advice to women "soyez pudiques mais pas prudes!". I mentioned dubious definitions of the word femme in Le Larousse (1940). The description of a language becomes a discourse on society and its morals with grammarians as well: in Girault-Duvivier's grammar a femme galante has a "conduite déréglée" ("abnormal, unruly behaviour").

However this judgmental discourse was not the prerogative of linguistic authorities. It was reflecting the discourse held in the society as a whole, as the next section shows.

3.2. The syntagms [adjective and femme] in literary texts

The meaning of collocations [adjective and femme] inferred from literary texts did not fare much better. The frequent usage of fol femme as equivalent to "prostitute" was confirmed in the medieval period. For the 16th century, ARTFL data show that the differential meaning grand homme "great man" vs. grande femme "tall woman" existed as soon as the adjective placement was more or less set in the French language. As for the adjective galant the lexicographer Richelet made a definite distinction in his dictionary about the usage of galant when talking about a man or about a woman: une femme galante was and still is a "courtisane" since the Renaissance (see note 5). Indeed all the occurrences of galante in ARTFL refer to sexuality and debauchery. Although femme publique was mentioned in dictionaries in the Renaissance, it only appears in the 18th century in ARTFL. As for the syntagm femme facile it was only in the 18th-century texts that I could see the emergence of this collocation with the word vertu "virtue" being found in co-occurrence with femme and facile:

Boursault, Esope et la Cour (1701: 180): la vertu de la femme est facile à broncher.
Chasles, Les Illustres Françaises (1713: 418): des filles d'une vertu facile.
Montesquieu, Les Lettres Persanes (1721: 64): une fille bien née. il est plus facile de faire perdre la vertu que la monnaie.

Littré confirms that the syntagm femme facile "woman easily seduced" was attested for the first time in 1761. The noun homme is never used in co-occurrence with the noun vertu; although the quotation "un homme facile à séduire" was found, homme facile never became lexicalized with a derogatory meaning.

From the findings I have presented, the noun femme does not seem to have suffered any gradual derogation; it seems to have always been linked to sex and inferiority according to dictionaries and literary texts. As well, there was no point in time when the literature was neutral when speaking about a woman. These findings corroborate Grisay's research (1969). They find that in late Latin texts the word femina was already sexually and negatively connoted; they postulate that these connotations could be the reason why the noun femme, derived from femina in old French texts, was more often understood as "promiscuous woman" than "female human being".

As we know, men mainly wrote these lexicographical and literary texts. Could there be any difference when women write texts? Results from ARTFL suggest that female writers may use language differently or/and may have another concept of what a woman is about.

4. Gender writing or difference of genre?

As I mentioned before, texts by women represent less than 4 % of the authors in ARTFL. Nevertheless these few women authors stand out in their usage of adjectives with the noun femme. The difference is twofold: first they use more varied and positive adjectives than other authors; second they use the adjectives presented in this paper with the differential meaning reserved to the male gender.

4.1. Marguerite de Navarre: gentille femme and sage femme

The ARTFL main database does not include any major women's texts for the Renaissance period. However a supplementary database contains one woman author (Marguerite de Navarre, L'Heptaméron, 1550). Marguerite de Navarre uses collocations such as gentille femme and sage femme much more often than her male contemporaries and with a meaning closer to the 'male meaning'. According to the linguist G. Gougenheim (1956: 16), the collocation gentille femme, "noble woman", was very much in use in the 16th century, as usual as the collocate gentlewoman at that time in English. Research on ARTFL gave results contradicting this statement. Out of 291 occurrences for the adjective gentil in the 11 documents for the Renaissance (texts written by Rabelais, Montaigne, etc.), only one instance of gentille femme was found. It was in Montaigne:

Montaigne, Essai 1 (p. 8): gentilsfemmes qui estoyent assiegées "the gentlewomen under siege"

It represents 0.3 %, a figure which begs the question whether literary texts reflect the usage of the period. The collocation gentilhomme was used 10 times more. In the additional database however, both authors de Navarre and Monseigneur de la Roche (Les Cents nouvelles nouvelles, 1482) use gentillefemme much more frequently. In these texts, out of a total of 663 occurrences of the adjective gentil 14 are collocates of gentilfemme: it amounts to 2 % for these authors against 0.3 % for the authors previously mentioned.[12] Seven occurrences were found in Marguerite de Navarre and seven in Monseigneur de la Roche. These authors speak four times more of noble women than the male authors in the main database.

The usage of the adjective sage with the noun femme shows also a similar discrepancy. In the main database, out of the 11 documents for the late Renaissance, 7 occurrences had been found altogether. The results of occurrences of sage and femme are shown in Annexes 1 and 2. Three relate to the profession "midwife". Among the 4 left describing a woman, three are dubiously derogatory: faire la sage implies that the woman is not wise but pretends to be wise; the contexts in Yver show the adjective sage immersed in a sea of derogative adjectives such as stupid, fat and overweight. Finally Montaigne's quotation is a play on words between wise woman and midwife; this quotation, although witty, is not in favour of the woman: "one needs a wise woman/midwife to come to this world but an even wiser man to get out of it". Only one occurrence is left about "a woman who is (really) wise" for 11 texts written by male authors: the same result as for gentille femme. Marguerite de Navarre and Monseigneur de la Roche are again 'outsiders'. The woman author uses sa(i)ge with the noun femme 14 times, and the male author twice.

If the syntagms sage femme and gentillefemme are used more by the woman author, the meaning of the adjectives can also differ according to which gender is writing. Marguerite de Navarre – and it is a fact noted by specialists (see Vallet, 1988) – used the adjective sage more in the sense of "wise in making decisions" when speaking of a woman while at the time that adjective seems already to be used as a synonym for "pure, virgin" especially for women. This adjective "pure" refers to her sexual behaviour and was also used for "virgin". The collocation which Marguerite de Navarre uses is sage et antienne "old and wise". The adjective sage cannot be related to "pure" or "virgin" as the woman described as sage et ancienne is a widow or an elderly woman. On the other hand these women always give good advice. De Navarre seems to use this adjective with the same meaning "wise" when describing a man or a woman, contrary to her contemporaries' usage.

4.2. Mme de Sévigné: a woman can also be a grand homme or a honnête homme

This possibility of a different usage between male and female authors is also found in the 17th century, in particular with Mme de Sévigné. She was one of the very few woman authors found in ARTFL for the 17th century since in 1998 there were only two others (Mme d'Aulnoy and Mme de Lafayette). Madame de Sévigné seems to be the only author to use the adjective grand in a laudative sense when referring to women (in fact referring to herself) in the 18th century as in the following quotation:

Je vous le conte, mon enfant. J'ai soutenu ce malheur en grande femme tout à fait, et je n'en irai pas moins à Paris "I am telling you my child, I have sustained this misfortune as a great woman/strong woman would have done and I would nevertheless go to Paris." (ARTFL, Sévigné Correspondance 3: 31)

This was not the standard usage at the time and it is still not today's usage. Later on, in the 19th century, G. Flaubert and V. Hugo used the syntagm grande femme with the same laudative meaning; however they were describing a woman who wore men's clothes, smoked a pipe and whose name was George (Sand). To go back to Sévigné, this woman author also uses the expression honnête femme more than most of her literary contemporaries and almost in the same way as she uses honnête homme. Her concept of honnête femme seems to relate to "a feminine ideal" and not to "a loyal spouse". Out of 351 documents I found only 18 occurrences of honnête femme in the 17th century, more than half are by Mme de Sévigné (10 occurences). Moreover, as mentioned before, the meaning could be closer to the notion of "honnête homme" than to the standard "loyal spouse", as she mentions the noun esprit "mind" in the same sentence as the collocation honnête femme:

Sévigné (Correspondance 1: 215): - fille. il vous trouve fort honnête femme "he finds you very "honnête femme""
(Correspondance 2: 870): une Mme De La Vanière, très honnête femme, bien de l'esprit "a certain madame De La Vanière, very honnête femme, right in her mind"

A very similar usage to the one she makes of honnête homme in co-occurrence with esprit:

(Correspondance 1: 726-727): il me parut un fort honnête homme, un esprit droit "he appears to me a real honnête homme, a fair mind"

It is known that a notion of honnête femme similar to the one understood with honnête homme had been defended by Du Bosc (1635) and other intellectuals; Pascal also mentioned "de fort honnêtes femmes" with this intellectual meaning. However the literary works in ARTFL do not show many occurrences of this usage in the canon.[13] Mme de Sévigné stands out in how often she refers to women as being honnêtes and how she 'means' it. Of course this research does not present enough data to conclude that a written woman's language exists or that women have a different concept of what a woman is. But this research leads to the possibility of the existence of such a language and of such a concept.

4.3. Questions raised by these partial findings

This research also raises the following questions:

  1. What role does genre play in the observed discrepancy in the usage of these syntagms? In the case of gentil(e)femme the results of a male author using the expression shows that it was possible for a man to use it and that it was not restricted to a "woman's language" (which in any case was not uncommon since it is mentioned in the Renaissance dictionaries). Why would prominent male authors not use the expression in their writings? Did they evacuate from their works the concept of rich or noble women? The two authors using gentille femme (Marguerite de Navarre and Monseigneur de la Roche) could be called "marginal" because they were both writing short stories, a minor genre. Are women more a topic in minor genres because they are a 'minor topic'?
  2. The French language kept only gentilhomme and not gentille femme. It seemed that what mainstream authors used in the Renaissance is part of our everyday language. Is this an indication that language is in some way defined by the canon?
  3. What role does gender play in the use of such expressions? Monseigneur de la Roche is a very early Renaissance author (1482) whereas Marguerite de Navarre lived in the middle of the Renaissance (1552). According to Labov (1976), women tend to use language in a more conservative fashion. Is De Navarre being 'conservative' in her way of writing? Women have also been described as choosing the language linked with prestige. De Navarre's writing may also be related to her high social status as much as her gender. Too few texts in the ARTFL database – and in general at that time – were written by women to draw any conclusion.


M. Olsen (1991a: 370) speaks of "linguistic encoding of gender" in Western societies. He also argues that this encoding "has been the preserve of males who in many ways continue to dominate the creation and modification of written language". Are we surprised to find one of these 'encodings' in adjectives? After all, adjectives are judgment whether these judgments are made on objective grounds (such as physical size) or subjective grounds (such as intellectual greatness). The judgment about women is too often made on sexual or derogatory grounds to be ignored. Dictionaries and literature have been and still are to a great extent a male domain; women are looked at and reduced to whatever denominator the voyeur is choosing, a reproductive organ as in femme grosse or a sexual object as in femme facile. ARTFL and the other computerized databases mentioned in this paper are outstanding research tools in helping us to analyze our historical and everyday discourse. These on-line data allow us not only to substantiate our hypothesis with quantitative studies but also to open new avenues for qualitative studies as I hope to have shown.


[1] The quote of Yaguello ([1987] 1978) plays on the differential meaning of syntagms [adjective + femme or homme]:

A courteous woman is promiscuous, a courteous man is well-behaved.
A knowledgeable woman is ridiculous, a knowledgeable man is well respected.
A loose woman is a fallen woman. A man if he happens to be loose is relaxed in his manners.
A girl and a woman are said to be 'easy', but a man is never easy ... that way; A woman can be of easy virtue but never a man; we talk about promiscuous women but we speak of a Don Juan [...] (my translation)

This paper presents work in progress; the final findings will be published under the following title: Hommes galants, Femmes faciles. Étude sémantique et diachronique de syntagmes à sens différentiel (Montréal: Fidès). The description of ARTFL in this paper and the findings are valid for the 1998 ARTFL edition. Mark Olsen has since added numerous texts (some dating back to the 11th century), another Old French data base and a database with women authors: fts/ARTFL/projects/FWW/. These databases can be found at: RTFL/ARTFL.html.

[2] My hypothesis of the noun femme modifying the adjectives was explained at the Languaging conference (February, 1997), and presented in detail in Baider (Fidès, to be published). I will only briefly summarize my demonstration here. This differential meaning of adjectives in French according to their position after or before the noun has been studied in Reiner (1968), Waugh (1977) and Wilmet (1991) among others.

[3] The word virtuous used when referring to a female human being has of course a sexual meaning. See, for a very detailed usage of the syntagms galant homme and honnête homme, Rémi-Giraud's article (1981): "Deux mots peuvent-ils être à la fois antonymes et synonymes: Approche lexicographique des mots honnête et galant au XVIIe siècle." She explains how these two adjectives symbolize the genders, their roles in society and the attitude of this very society towards each gender.

[4] Another syntagm which exists only for the noun femme is faible femme (Waugh, 1977). It is not included in the main text as it does not show any differential meaning as such with the noun homme. Faible femme is generally used with the following meaning: elle n'est qu'une faible femme "she is just a woman", and was still used by Simone de Beauvoir, for instance (Les Mandarins, 1954: 523). This syntagm reminds us of other commonly used expressions to describe the female gender such as le sexe faible or le sexe imbécile. Physical fragility has been associated with mental weakness and weak morals when referring to women.

[5] The lexicographer Richelet (1680) had noticed that the postposition of this adjective inferred sexual connotation. However, with the lexeme homme this connotation was not – and is still not – derogatory; un homme galant is well-behaved and knows how to deal with women. On the other hand, une femme galante is connoted with derogation as Richelet already noticed: "au féminin quand on dit c'est une galante, on entend toujours une Courtisane".

[6] These definitions are not the result of my 'linguistic intuition'. They are the results of research published by Waugh (1977), Blinkenberg (1941) and Yaguello ([1987]1978). Below are the definitions given by the Petit Robert, 1993:

léger: un garçon ignorant et léger (= étourneau) (en amour) = volage. Femme légère
facile: accommodant, arrangeant, tolérant [...] En parlant d'une femme. Qui accepte facilement des relations sexuelles = léger. Femme, fille facile.
galant: Empressé, entreprenant auprès des femmes. [...] Un homme galant avec les femmes [...] Péj. Femme galante, de mœurs légères.

[7] See 080/~merrilee/reflex.htm. The following manuscripts are available: Glossarium Gallico-latinum, 15th century, French-Latin dictionary, Paris BN lat. 7684; Montpellier-Stockholm Catholicon, late 14th century, Latin-French dictionary, Montpellier, Fac. de Médecine, H110, Stockholm, Bibl. Kungl. N78; Vocabularius familiaris et compendiosus, 15th century, Latin-French dictionary, G. Le Talleur, imprimeur à Rouen, c.1490; Aalma, 14th century, Latin-French dictionary, Paris, BN.

[8] The paradigms taken into account were femme, fille dame, vierge. Some of my findings are published in Baider (1996).

[9] Sexuality was characterized by violence or adultery with the repetition of words such as force / forcement / viol. Willard McCarty (King's College, London), an Ovid expert, also found that sexuality was linked to violence in this author's texts. See also D. Rougemont (1956) [Editor's note: reference missing] and K. Gravdal (1991) for the association of violence with sexuality in medieval texts.

[10] If the verb dépuceler means "to break the hymen", the Latin vitium pudicitiae addere implies more rape than consensual sex. The same Latin translation is used for dépuceler "to deflower" and violer "to rape".

[11] The word ravir, "to take away, often by force" took also the meaning of "rape" in medieval times. See K. Gravdal (1991).

[12] It is still not a very high number for a noun described as very common by Gougenheim. However, its male counterpart gentilhomme is found 4 times in the main database and 169 times for the more recent ones.

[13] In the main database 7 occurrences of honnête femme were found out of a total of 482 occurrences of the adjective honnête = 1.4 % and for Monseigneur de la Roche, 7 out of 186 occurrences = 3.7 %. On the semantic level, there is still a discrepancy in the meaning of the adjective honnête when it refers to female human beings in the abstract and laudative meaning. R. Duchêne's article (1985) [Editor's note: reference missing] demonstrates that although the honnête femme could reach the same social perfection as the honnête homme, she would lose her status is she was not 'honnête' in her sexual behaviour. On the contrary, the honnête homme is encouraged to express his sexuality; honnête with the noun homme "évoquait l'idée d'initiative, d'épanouissement social voire sexuel".


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Annex 1

Occurrences of sa(i)ge and femme: ARTFL 1450-1550

Navarre, L'Heptaméron, 1550.

727:toutesfois saige et femme de bien. 
729:antienne et saige femme, autant qu'il en estoit 
745:voyant sa femme tant saige, belle et chaste 
880 :belle et non moins saige et vertueuse
901:affection fraternelle d'une saige dame
912 :que voylà une saige femme 
924 :et trouva là une saige femme
929: la plus saige de la compaignye 
929:tant belle et saige 
982 :elle estoit si saige, que une chose si desraisonnable [...]
1026 :elle, la trouvant si saige et honneste
1056 :sa femme, qui estoit saige, en fut advertye; 
1124 :de bonne lignée et saige

Roche, Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, 1482.

178: de sa tresbonne femme et sage, pour les biens qu'il avoit trouve 
220: voisine, qui estoit femme sage et asseurée, ne s'effraya de rien

Annex 2

Occurrences of sage + femme: ARTFL 1500-1600

Bonaventure des Périers, Les Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis, 1557.

493: Thoinette fit bien la sage et suivit la bonne femme d'abbesse

Poissenot, Benigne L'este (extraits) 1557.

1308:chaste, sage, et honneste, 
1311: une femme me semble assez sage, quand elle peut discerner [...]

Yver, Jacques Le Printemps (extraits) 1557.

1171: si ce n'est une règle de sage femme, 
1261: petite, grosse, menue, sage, sotte, grasse, et maigre, qui 

Montaigne, Essai 3, 1588.

978: si nous avons besoing de sage femme à nous mettre au monde, 
nous avons besoin d'un homme encore plus sage à nous en sortir 

Aubigné, Tragiques 2, 1600.

75: Paris à la minuict, vole une sage femme, 



Fabienne Baider (University of Toronto)





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